‘The King’ was a loved man of the people
olf wouldn’t be the great game it is today without its memorable characters and legends who have spread the word around the globe. Through the centuries, from Old Tom Morris to Tiger Woods, it has been individuals who have chiefly popularised golf. People often take up the game for no better reason than that they were inspired by watching Gary Player or Ernie Els. Sadly, in an issue where we are celebrating the arrival of a new boisterous character in Beef Johnston, who already has a growing legion of fans, we record the passing of a man who changed the course of professional golf, Arnold Palmer, at 87.
Through the 1960s and 1970s Arnie was the biggest crowd-puller the game has seen. He might not have been the greatest golfer even of his era, having to contend with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in his heyday, but no one had such an electrifying presence at a time when golf was first starting to be shown on TV. His bold, gambling play captivated audiences, and ensured that the networks broadcast more golf. He had flamboyance and style which conferred on him movie star status. No wonder he earned the nickname of “The King.”
Palmer was so popular with the American populace that had he run for President, he would have won in a landslide. The world might have been a less divisive place today had he done so.At every tournament he played, there was an Arnie’s Army of devoted followers.They loved him, whether he was winning or losing, because of his charisma and the way he empathised with the crowd.
There’s a story of a moment in his career when Arnie was disturbed by a young boy as he was over a shot. His mother was having hysterics herself, trying to keep him quiet as they became the focus of the gallery’s attention. Tiger’s caddie Steve Williams might have glared and abused the boy,
Gbut Arnie walked over, patted the boy on his head, and told his mother, “Hey, don’t choke him; it’s not all that important.” Arnie didn’t accomplish the Grand Slam (the PGA eluded him), as did Ben Hogan, Player, Nicklaus and Woods, but he was more loved than any of them because he was a man of the people, having grown up in the 1930s as the son of a club professional and greenkeeper who never forgot his humble beginnings. And, something you don’t often see among the top tour players today, he loved nothing more himself than just playing golf. Being out on a golf course with friends was a daily routine for him after retiring from tournament golf.“What other people may find in poetry, I find in the flight of a good drive,” was one of his sayings.
He will be fondly remembered not only in the United States, but also at the R&A clubhouse in St Andrews, having shaken up the thought processes of this once ancient institution in the 1960s. It was at the Old Course in the Centenary Open of 1960 that Palmer played his first Open, at a time when there were virtually no Americans in the field. Palmer lost that year to the Australian Kel Nagle, but won the next two Opens at Troon and Birkdale, and within a few years had transformed the championship into the wonderful international festival of golf it is today.To think that when Palmer first visited the UK, he still had to pre-qualify each year with everyone else, and the championship finished on a Friday afternoon.
This November issue was going to print as the news broke that Arnie was gone, and our own tribute to “The King” will be published in the December issue.